Communication and understanding, can be two of the most important ingredients of timetable and space management. Without, all the effort put in to creating new processes that should improve delivery can end up at best at best less effective than first hoped, or at worst failure.
Ineffective communication and understanding within and outside of the timetabling team, will often result in both central and departmental timetabling teams as well those requesting timetabling or room bookings, innocently working against you. Not only this, but it is typically hard to even know when and why these issues have occurred without carrying time consuming data collection and analysis of timetable and space data.
Effective communication and understanding will help solve these problems and enable the institution to work towards common goals. With each person understanding what is required and why, innocent errors are removed from the process and as long as the understanding is implemented successfully, staff will not only want to work with you towards your goals now, but should also be much more open to more creative solutions in the future. Effective communication and understanding, will get you trust – and in the timetabling world, this is priceless.
Below are 7 methods that could help to improve timetabling communication and understanding within your institution:
1. Clearly define and publish your institutions timetable policies, making them available to all.
Your timetable policy should be your go to document, with all your procedures, key dates and importantly your expectations (i.e. what people should do and shouldn’t do). Its worth making this detailed and not missing parts that you think people know anyway, i.e. only book the teaching weeks you require (seems obvious, but I have often found there will be staff who think they can only book all semester for one reason or another!) so its always best to cover what you believe to be the obvious.
When you are putting your timetable policy together, it would be best to include all of the central timetabling team as well as the space manager, plus before publishing go through the document with the key timetable staff in each department. This will help to ensure all key staff effected have an opportunity to influence the policy helping to improve communication, engagement and understanding.
Finally, once you have your completed timetable policy it needs to be officially published somewhere visible, preferably on the University website so staff, students and visitors can find it. If you have a timetable web page (see later point) then this would be the best place for it, otherwise if you published it in the same area other related online procedures are kept this should still be effective. Basically, your looking to put the document in a place where anyone could find it quickly and easily, without having to search through the website. By having this document online and accessible to all, you can then refer to it through all future communications and ensure that staff can easily become educated on everything to do with timetabling.
2. A timetabling webpage.
Having a central timetable web page, is a great way to communicate all types of timetabling related information to staff and students. All the timetables, information, policies and news can be included on one simple web page enabling staff and students to be able to easily find what they are looking for. This page should ideally be dedicated to timetabling and not shared with other departments, as those who want to know about timetabling are likely to only want to find out about timetabling, therefore other departments information will only make it harder for the users to find what they are looking for, decreasing potential engagement.
If your students have various ways of seeing their timetable, i.e. your departments produce their own online timetables, then again include the links to these sources on the central timetabling page, clearly defining which students should use which timetable. This will help to resolve the issues separate department timetables can have on those that take modules from different departments, a particular issue for joint honours students.
There is of course much more you can do with displaying your timetable on your web page with new technology, such as online calendaring services that make timetables much more digestible for students and staff. Salford Software’s Calsync product is one of a few examples of this which I highly recommended having carried out a project with them myself, they have an excellent and responsive service so its worth checking them out.
3. Regularly meet with at least one key timetable staff member from each department
Meetings are something that are becoming avoided more and more, but in the timetabling world I continue to believe they are the quickest and most effective way of communicating and improving understanding. In this instance, informally meeting every couple of months with one key person from each department will help to ensure you are still both on the same page and working towards the same goals, as well as give you both the opportunity to raise and solve any concerns or questions you may be having.
By carrying out these meetings, you are helping to build relationships that will provide you with much more trust as well helping to improve understanding. These meetings don’t need to be long, I would say 30-60 minutes each is enough and if done effectively i.e. with an agenda and notes/actions taken, then they can be very useful in the short and long term.
4. Meet with key academic and administration staff from each department.
This one can be a bit of a daunting task but again it can prove to be very useful. Getting people on board, is a major factor of success and key academic staff are the kind of people that can really help influence others in their department. Not only are these key senior academic and administrative staff likely to be the most knowledgeable and interested in timetabling, they are also likely to be the most influential. This can be of huge benefit to you, as during these meetings you will almost certainly get lots of feedback (be prepared for this!) which you can discuss and address plus you can ask any questions you have been wanting to ask, this is what you want, lots of feedback! It is also useful to explore new timetabling ideas in these meetings and discuss your objectives over the coming year(s).
These meetings will help to make the departments academic staff in particular, feel like they have someone who will listen and take action (as long as you do then take action!) which will build trust. Preparation is critical for these types of meetings, agendas and documentation backing up any discussions will go a long way to helping you get achieving what you want. Not every one of these types of meetings may go as well as hoped (timetabling can be a hot topic!), but by reaching out you will have at least shown that you do want to listen which will make everyone more accommodating the next time you meet as you have begun to build some trust.
5. Create a timetabling working group
Working groups are something that I feel institutions should do more of. If you have separate departments all with their own timetabling duties and/or delivery it can be very useful and interesting to bring these people together occasionally to discuss and share best practice as well as take feedback and discuss current and upcoming projects. Individual departments typically all do aspects of their timetabling responsibility differently and this is a great chance to explore these and try to make their’s and life easier by looking at the most effective options. Again this helps to build trust and improve the whole process.
Ideally these types of meeting should be done at critical points during the timetabling process, such as before timetable data collection, before draft timetable is released and once teaching in under way (i.e. 3rd/4th week of teaching, to give everyone a chance to get through the hectic period but also have any issues fresh in the mind). This will allow you to answer critical questions, field any concerns you have and access the general mood of the group – and try to address it, if its down beat!
6. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page
There will be questions that you face day to day, some may well even be answered within your timetabling policy, but you still get asked them (i.e. Can I use your classroom for dance practice?). A good way to combat these, is to have a FAQ page linked from your timetabling homepage that you and your team can routinely add to detailing the question and the answer, as and when you are faced with a new question. Eventually, this list will grow and grow and not only be a really useful resource for those that have a question but also a really useful resource for you and your team, as well as act as a training manual for any new timetabling staff that are employed.
This will be particularly helpful during your busiest periods and the more you can direct people to this page before they pick up the phone or send you an email, the more time you save. Overtime, this page will have answers to practically every question staff routinely ask, so if you also provide an easy to use search bar this can be really effective. Having this page, enables staff to instantly find out the answer to their query without ever having to contact you and wait for a reply (in theory!) – just think of all the time this could save!
7. Communication Policy
Although I am a great believer in communication, there is only so much time you can spend answering questions during your busiest periods. A communication policy can therefore be of great help in addition to a FAQ page..
If you have informal communication agreements or want to make some (they can be very useful in helping you do what you need to do), then its best to get these formally written up (follow a similar method to that of the point 1) ), agreed upon and then added to you website or published somewhere staff and students can easily find. It would also be worthwhile getting this document communicated directly to those that it effects i.e. all staff, to ensure you have communicated this as much as you can (and take it to all other timetabling meetings!).
By having these agreements formally recognised and published somewhere everyone can find, people are far more likely to stick to them and if they don’t, you can quickly address the issue and move on, knowing that this person now knows what to do. If everyone is happy with the policy, this can save you lots of time addressing issues that aren’t your responsibility to address, plus if the policy works well the users should see an improvement in the speed and quality of the responses they get – as they are now asking the best person(s)!
Each of these points, will require some of your time and effort to establish, but if done effectively will not only save you time in the long run but also improve the effectiveness of your work and in my opinion, make your average day a better day!
Better communication and understanding, will build trust in you and your team, so even if it does go wrong (which it can do occasionally) people are much more likely to be understanding and helpful. Whilst when it succeeds, everyone can share in the success and appreciate it, as everyone worked together to accomplish it.
Effective communication, creates engaged people who are much more likely to want you to succeed than fail. Their will power and positive attitude alone, can be what it takes to make the difference between a positive and a negative outcome.
So, what do you think? Have you found this useful? Would be great to hear from you and I would be very interested to know whether you have any communication points to add that you have found to be useful. Also, if you would like to receive notifications when more free articles are available online as well as information directly to your inbox, then please remember to subscribe.
If you would like to discuss this further or are interested in implementing this kind of approach, please feel free to contact me. As well as offering consultancy services that can help you improve your timetabling and space communication, I am also happy to offer free advice so please don’t hesitate to get in contact.
All the best